Was he ever great? Absolutely.
Did he have three straight dominating years at the big league level? No question.
By the end of the 2004 baseball season, current Milwaukee Brewers' closer Eric Gagne was noted by many as one of the best, if not the best, closer in baseball. At that point, he had just finished his third straight season as a closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The stats read as follows: 82.1 IP, 45 SV, 114 SO, 53 H, 2.19 ERA. Staggering? Yes.
Even more incredible, though, was Gagne's 2003 season, in which he captured the National League Cy Young Award as a closer, a rare feat in baseball. His 2002 and 2003 ERAs were 1.97 and 1.20 respectively.
Three seasons. All dominating.
After his run of 84 consecutive saves ended July 5, 2004, Gagne was probably the most feared closer in the majors for the remainder of the season. However, he was not the best closer in baseball.
The best closer in baseball can't only have three dominating seasons, then return to mediocrity for the remainder of his career.
The best closer in baseball not only needs to shine during the regular season, but also on the big stage. The closest Gagne ever got to the big stage back in 2004 was his All-Star game appearance, in which he promptly served up an American League game-winning home run to Hank Blalock.
The best closer in baseball can't be found in Sen. George Mitchell's Report for using performance enhancing drugs throughout, oh yes, the 2004 season.
The best closer in baseball at the end of the 2004 season was on the New York Yankees.
Mariano Rivera's 2004 stats read as follows: 78.2 IP, 53 SV, 66 SO, 65 H, 1.95 ERA. Maybe not quite as ridiculous as Gagne's, but dominating nonetheless.
Rivera, however, was never named in the Mitchell Report. He's succeeded more than any other closer in postseason play, and he's been dominating since he burst onto the New York scene in 1996.
Count 'em up. That's 12 straight seasons of dominating big league hitters, compared to Gagne's three.
The argument many made for Gagne back then was pitchers are judged on excellence by the amount of Cy Young Awards they own. Gagne had one. Rivera had none. I've never heard anything that made less sense.
Cy Young Awards are given to pitchers based on one season, not a career. Gagne may have arguably had better stats during his run from 2002-2004, but when looking at the two careers, Rivera had put up his numbers more consistently and was a proven winner.
Since 2004, Gagne has been barely better than the average reliever in baseball, while Rivera has continued to excel. Rivera's ERA in 2007 (one of the highest of his career, which says a lot about his dominance) was 3.15. He racked up 30 saves in a "bad year."
Gagne's ERA last year after he was traded from the awful Texas Rangers to the big stage in Boston: a whopping 6.75.
Perhaps because of his steroid use, Gagne's body began to break down after the 2004 season, which brings into question whether his three year run of dominance was only a result of the drugs.
Either way, the pitcher has never quite been the same. On Opening Day for the Brewers Monday, Gagne gave up a game-tying three-run home run to Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. Not a good sign for new $10 million Brewer.
On the other hand, Rivera, at age 38, remains on the team where he started. He recently signed a three-year, $45 million deal to virtually finish his career in pinstripes, where his team counts on him now as much as ever before. He continues to be one of the most dominant closers in baseball and has forever etched in name in baseball history.
Back in 2004, there was some speculation as to whether the Dodgers closer would go down as the best to ever play the game. Now, he is nowhere in the equation.
But Rivera still is. He currently sits second on the all-time saves list with 433, trailing only San Diego Padres' star closer Trevor Hoffman (524 saves).
Now, ask me who the better closer of those two is, then maybe it will actually be debatable.
The debate between him and Rivera will never be a contest.